Thursday, December 24, 2015

Father Joe's "Most Memorable Christmas"

Cardinal Spellman in Vietnam. Father Joe is on the left.

My Most Memorable Christmas

Excerpted from "Foibles of Father Joe," by the Rev. Connell J. Maguire (1918-2012)
(c) 2012, Chi Chi Press

With the task of choosing my most memorable Christmas came awareness of the strength of memories of Christmases past.  Small wonder of course.  At Halloween we may change our surface appearance, but at Christmas we are transformed in feeling and behavior.  We find ourselves suddenly more loving, more giving and forgiving, kind, warm.  Even hard facts from the business world attest to this transformation.  Stores are jammed with people on a new mission – shopping not for themselves, but for those they love.  The second part of the testimony is even more impressive.  This shopping for others, for love, is far greater than any other shopping spree, for any other motive, year round.

What could cause this outpouring of our best except that deep within our spirits we sense that something of great joy has transpired.  There is a realization that Christmas brings a new relationship with the source of our life.  The Divine has become tangible in the form of a child.  A great outpouring of God’s love occurred which touches and moves us at the core of our being.  “The heart has its reasons the mind knows not of.”  For us at Christmas, heart and mind both embrace a great reality, ever present, everlasting.  And so the noisy, crowded aisles of stores and the quiet, reverent aisles of churches speak in response the same message of overflowing hearts.

That our memories are bright, then, is easy to understand, but choosing one is no less a task.  I remember so vividly a Christmas Midnight Mass on an aircraft carrier at Cannes, France, in 1953.  The decorated hangar deck was jammed with U.S. Navy men singing their hearts out in those first magic moments of Christmas, their voices traveling over the quiet waters of the anchorage to the Riviera hills.  I remember clearly the special quality of Christmas in Japan with all the ships in Sasebo port for the holidays.  We had to use a downtown theater to accommodate the crowd for Midnight Mass.  An all-Japanese choir sang carols in that rarefied, angelic tone of a people who seek their God first in beauty.  But though these are unforgettable, I must choose as the most memorable of all – Christmas 1965, in the land of beauty and terror, Vietnam.

So busy were the news media in reporting the terror that few found space for a description of its scene.  Vietnam is ineffably beautiful.  Mountains of every shade of green rise inland, peeping over each other’s shoulder until lost in a blue haze.  Rivers emerge from the hills, and wind across flat green plains patched with rice paddies.  Daytona-like beaches rim the land.  Our tents were on the instep of a mountain so at night, rather than looking up, you looked directly at the stars.  One Sunday morning as we admired this scenery from our shared jeep, Rabbi Reiner (on the way to his “weekday” service) remarked wistfully, “Everything is order except mankind.”

Christmas had to share in this paradoxical mixture of beauty and terror, joy and sadness, love and hate.  Rifles stuck up from the shoulders of Marines kneeling in prayer or standing to sing “Silent Night.”  This was to be their last Christmas in Vietnam, but Marine infantry casualties were very heavy.  For many a white Christmas was only a dream, never to be.  How would they return to America?  The question was always there.  Would it be on a seat in an airplane or in a box?  The loneliness of perhaps never returning home and the thought of the impact of “the box” on those at home, especially for a father, is a more persistent feeling than fear.

At Christmas 1965, into this scene, came an old man who had traveled the fronts of three wars, Francis Cardinal Spellman.  To some he may be a controversial figure in church history, but no one could deny his great affection for young Americans which motivated him to travel thousands of miles in all kinds of aircraft to assure the troops that they were appreciated and unforgotten.  His heart went out to all those young men, too young to vote on the policies determining their sad fate.  His message assuring them of the dignity of their lives was amplified by his frail condition.  To think he had come so far even though his legs were too weak to climb unaided the platform to the altar.

Father Joe and Cardinal Spellman in Vietnam

 We placed the altar on the same platform Bob Hope would use a few days later.  It could be said we tested it for him.  Early in the Mass, the jerrybuilt sound system went dead.  Chaplain Morton, a Lutheran, and Chaplain Garrett, a Methodist, came to our aid.  They raced to the compound at the end of the mud street of Hua Paat village, known as Dog Patch to the Marines, and came back with a portable lectern and mike in time for the Cardinal’s sermon.  The Cardinal was equal to the task of singing the Mass and in a strong voice expressed his greetings to a grateful assembly.  Shortly after he had given his blessing, one of his last, he was whisked off in a helicopter to Chu Lai Hospital to visit the wounded.

The monsoon rains which had held off during the Mass started again.  Protestant and Catholic chaplains had a cup of coffee together in the shelter of a tent and exchanged our own season’s wishes.  We were all a bit exhausted.  Conducting eve and midnight services and an early morning schedule in isolated areas had used up a lot of energy.  It was afternoon now on that Christmas of intense joy and sadness.  We would all remember that its light had shone brightly against the dark background.

The Vietnam War is far behind us, thank God.  A prayer that our land will lead the way to peace and justice is on our lips with every Christmas.

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